The Hollywood musical as we remember it from its mid-20th century heyday is never going to have a revival. And it's pointless to pretend that the occasional throwback that makes it to the big screen presages a larger movement - no matter how successful Grease, Flashdance, Chicago or even Tim Burton's take on Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd may have been, they'll never amount to more than blips on a screen.
Even if more risqué attempts to reinvent the genre for a specifically filmic setting (such as Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge or Julie Taymor's Across the Universe) can be artistically successful, the risk/reward ratio is simply too daunting for bottom-line-obsessed studios to take the leap of faith. Therefore, this long-gestating film version of Mr. Sondheim's mid-eighties Broadway classic Into the Woods will never be anything other than a decent record of a lavish all-star production mounted specifically for the big screen: a filming that plays it generally close to the vest, tweaking as little as possible in both story and score to maintain intact its pedigree while making sure it doesn't get lost in translation.
In some ways, Into the Woods as a play was already a hybrid that fed on the Hollywood and Broadway clichés of genre the best to deconstruct and reinvent them. Its meditation on fairy tales as narrative devices, stories that help us make sense of life or explain away what doesn't make sense, draws heavily, conceptually and visually, on the fairy tale tropes crystallized by Walt Disney's animated takes on them. (No wonder that it's the Disney studio backing the film.)
In and around the titular woods, a series of classic characters collide over a couple of nights: Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Jack of the bean stalk (Daniel Huttlestone) and Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy). Their paths cross as the result of a childlessness curse set many years ago by a wicked witch (Meryl Streep), which has now fallen on the Baker and his wife (James Corden and Emily Blunt), desperate to do anything to bear a child. It's no accident that it's childlessness that brings all these reinterpretations of children's stories into re-writing, with Mr. Sondheim and his librettist and regular collaborator James Lapine (also scripting here) weaving an incredibly multi-layered plot that folds the genre into metaphors for modern society's issues of self-esteem, success and ambition.
Cinderella is indecisive and her Prince Charming (Chris Pine) a superficial buffoon; the Red Riding Hood is in search of forbidden pleasures and the Wolf (Johnny Depp) an older, kinkier seducer; the Baker's Wife teeters between the dream of an enchanted fling with the Prince and the reality of marriage with her devoted husband. In essence, Into the Woods is about getting comfortable within your own skin, no matter where it takes you, with the fantastical mid-19th century setting at the same time comforting and strange, Dennis Gassner's production design making the piece resonate as the "dark ride" it was clearly thought as, anchoring its theatricality but also allowing it to break free into the film world.
On its face, though, the choice of former Broadway choreographer Rob Marshall to helm (despite Mr. Sondheim's blessing) seemed unpromising. Despite his background in Broadway, neither his Chicago (a lively but half-baked and stunningly choppy mess) nor his Nine were successful transfers to the big screen. It becomes clear really fast, though, that his anonymous, illustrative handling pays off handsomely, as it never detracts from what is the piece's centre: Mr. Sondheim's meticulously crafted songs. It's the songs that fulfill Into the Woods' narrative thrust and move the action forward, their tongue-twisting lyrics revealing character and filling in plot, and Mr. Marshall shoots them as he would non-singing action, finding the exact point between extravagance and naturalism, between tongue-in-cheek slyness and vulnerability.
The tendency in American musicals since the genre's heyday passed is to cast dramatic actors in singing roles rather than casting for singers who can act, but here what appears to be far too much stunt casting turns out to be surprisingly note-perfect. Ms. Blunt and Mr. Corden pretty much steal the film from under everybody's feet, with Ms. Kendrick a close third as a resourceful Cinderella; it's a shame that some of the performers are underused (Mr. Depp, Christine Baranski as Cinderella's Stepmother, Tracey Ullman as Jack's Mother and Simon Russell Beale as the Baker's Father are essentially cameos).
But what is key in this Into the Woods is that this is a screen musical that retains the ambiguity, thoughtfulness and smarts of the stage play and makes them work within the context of a film. Even if it's not a greatly inventive film - just a professional rendition of a classic musical - it's not filmed theatre either, and for that we should be grateful.
INTO THE WOODS
Cast Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, Tracey Ullman, Christine Baranski, Johnny Depp, Lilla Crawford, Daniel Huttlestone, Mackenzie Mauzy, Billy Magnussen, Lucy Punch, Tammy Blanchard, Frances de la Tour, Simon Russell Beale
Director Rob Marshall; screenwriter James Lapine; from the musical play Into the Woods with book by Mr. Lapine and music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; cinematographer Dion Beebe (colour, widescreen); composer and songwriter Stephen Sondheim; musical director Paul Gemignani; designer Dennis Gassner; costumes Colleen Atwood; editor Wyatt Smith; musical numbers staged by John de Luca and Mr. Marshall; effects supervisor Matt Johnson; producers Mr. De Luca, Mr. Marshall, Marc Platt and Callum McDougall; production companies Walt Disney Pictures, Lucamar Productions and Marc Platt Productions
Screened December 19th 2014, NOS Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon (distributor press screening)